Midterm Exam questions

1. How can agriculture be seen as a development caused by politics or religion? What are the main ideas behind those theories?

The development of agriculture as caused by religion and politics is comprehended when seeing how this economic activity affects food – its supply and production. Food, when its supply is limited and its acquisition is very difficult, tends to be equally distributed among those who engaged in its production.

This was what characterized the earlier stages of our evolution. Everything, from food gathering and hunting, to cooking and eating, were social in nature because man was pitted against an environment that he still did not master. Thus, working together was the sole manner in which man was able to adapt to his environment and eventually survive.

Cooking, with man’s discovery of fire, and subsequently eating food carried with it certain rituals that celebrated its availability and the human sustenance it will provide. As this process of mastering and changing nature as a culture continued, other ways of producing greater and more reliable amounts of food were discovered as in animal domestication and agriculture.

When production activities eventually produced more food than what the social group needed, it was then that inequality in terms of the distribution of work involved and of its products emerged (p.51). This was what characterized the earlier engagement of man with plant propagation.

While the elite (the nobility or those who ruled) do not work because they owned the land, they had an abundance of food. They are categorized as the non-food producers of society. Below them in the class structure, farmers toiled in the fields and ate less, giving land tribute to those who owned it. This kind of politics or the power over access to food without actually engaging in its labor enabled the elites to engage and further develop knowledge, not only in production but in warfare, philosophy, religion and the sciences.

The social rituals involved in the pre-agriculture way of life of man, gave rise to religions that were integrated into the cycles of agricultural food production (p.52). Each stage of the cycle involves rituals that would ensure a season of plenty and bountiful harvests are celebrated with grand, religious festivals of eating the fields’ first produce. For example, the Aztecs conducted mass eating of sacred beans and corn stew, ingredients that came from the season’s harvests.

Hence, both the political system and religious practices established the role of agriculture in society’s methods of food acquisition.

2. What are the common features of government and religion across all the river valley civilizations? Why were they common?

Civilizations tended to rise in river valley areas because the physical conditions of these environments permitted a sustainable source of water for agriculture. This is a far better situation as opposed to farmers’ dependence on unpredictable rain fall.

The waters also served as carriers of minerals vital to the maintenance of soil fertility. A reliable supply of water means a higher probability of superior crops and good harvest. Good harvest also means food abundance or excess, human energy and life. The excess in food supply enabled man to engage in other fields of human development.

Governments or their political structures are also quite similar in that there are rulers-emperors and pharaohs for example, who belong to the elite class. Serving them as officials are the religious (priests, scribes) and military leaders and bureaucrats. Governments are centralized with institutionalized ways of administration as evidenced in the laws, codes and policies enacted and enforced through force or otherwise (p.79).

The consolidated political control over the whole population resulted in an integrated economy and a homogenous culture (p.86). Hence, the trading of the surplus of economic production through the labor of farmers or artisans became possible and gave rise to a class of merchants and traders.

Trading, or the export of excess food and other products and the import of food and other products not available locally, was a financially lucrative enterprise for elites and governments, not to mention the luxury food and non-food items they acquired out of it.

Hence, kingdoms, empires and dynasties waged conquests upon their neighbors to control trade i.e. to eliminate competition (p.95). The enhancement of its routes (i.e. master the rivers, seas and land for trade) was also one objective. The history of the Silk Road is an example of this.

These imperialistic undertakings also made way for them to obtain other tradable resources made abundant in the conquered societies through the latter’s own production efforts (p.96). In this manner of establishing control of others through force, they also protected their society’s resources (including their food supply).

Religions across the river valley civilizations are characterized as involving elements of the natural environment as their gods (p.64). The Hindus considered water and some animals as sacred, Chinese religions centered on man’s harmony and unity with nature, civilizations pay tribute to the sun and moon.

Incidentally, religion was not separate from government and their theology involved not just one but many deities who form a hierarchical system. Their practices reflect their interaction with nature as in crop cultivation, hunting, silk production, pottery making, etc. However, these religions were influenced by other religions as cultural contact as the result of trade became possible.

The commonalities in government and religion among river valley civilizations stems from the same objective economic and political conditions which are consequences of their capacities to produce surplus food and other products for human consumption, adaptation to their environment.

3. What common characteristics of the empires of Assyria and Babylon share? What factors caused their failure?

The empires of Assyria and Babylon were both river valley civilizations located in what is called the Fertile Crescent, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. They both had a developed agricultural production, engaged in trading, philosophy, science and technology, the latter leading them to build ships, hanging gardens and more sophisticated weapons. They both had armies and conducted imperialistic conquests of each other and neighboring states.

Failure was mostly due to internal instabilities of their empires (p.105). For instance, Assyria focused so much on war, its military and related technologies, spreading its armies so thinly in efforts to conquer as many other states as possible. Their thin dispersal made them vulnerable to other empire-states who were after the same objective or who just did not wish to be subjugated and reduced to slave labor.

As a result, the basic agricultural production for food was neglected as more of the population became soldiers. More importantly, diversification of food production was not considered significant to merit attention. Reliance on just one method of domestic food production as well as conquest and trade for obtaining resources also fostered reliance on the great rivers for irrigation as a trade route (p.126).

This did not prepare them for environmental and climate shifts wherein the rivers receded and became heavily silted adversely affecting agriculture and trade. Partner states in trade also ceased to engage in it because of their own specific internal problems. The resulting limitations in food and resources supply led to more wars and conquests which characterized the region of Mesopotamia and eventually wore down some of the empires (p.127).

4. Compare and contrast the three Chinese philosophical ideologies: Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism.

Taoism is an ideology that focuses on the individual and his life’s mission of finding his place in the world. In order to achieve this, one has to study nature and one’s self as integral to it. Taoism promotes a view of nature whose beauty and rhythm is driven by a pervasive power in the universe. Drastic changes to the natural course of things would ruin this rhythm and balance (p.316).

Confucianism emphasizes unity with one’s social and natural environment, establishing social stability through non-violent means (p.317). Man should nurture himself and the natural environment as well. It teaches adherence to society’s values and rituals, the hierarchical social order, education for further self-development and the government’s role of earning trust through ensuring and protecting public welfare. It further promotes the common good in every endeavor through both individual and cooperative efforts.

Legalism on the other hand, teaches the absolute rule of law in creating social stability. Because man is considered as innately self-centered, punishing those who break the law and rewarding those who adhere to it makes people law-abiding. It advocated utilitarianism, or engaging in activities that directly benefits others such as agriculture (p.317).

Both Taoism and Confucianism promote harmony with the environment while Legalism, through its utilitarian principles, sought the labor of people in transforming the environment through agriculture, the building of the Great Wall and others. While Taoism values the individual, Confucianism values the social structure while Legalism, the law.

Nature unobstructed is central to Taoism, while Confucianism tends to include promote harmony with nature as well as changing it as long as it constitutes the common good. Legalism discourages discourse on non-practical matters and focuses on nature only if it is within the realms of the law.


Fernandez-Armesto, F. (2006) The World: A History Volume One to 1500. New Jersey:

Prentice Hall.